“Younger, ignorant of life, we were caught up with ignorance, movement, distraction, excesses. Now we know life, yet its pain oppresses and crushes us. What to do? Nothing”.

<i>Messa da Requiem</i> © Gregory Batardon
Messa da Requiem
© Gregory Batardon

Giuseppe Verdi penned those lines in Italian to Countess Giuseppina Negroni-Prati in 1898. The discouraged syndrome he saw in himself spurred his Messa da Requiem, which premiered in Milan in 1874, while hardly a Catholic mass; not only was Verdi an agnostic, but the work clearly pushes the limits of any single religious doctrine. Instead, as conductor Fabio Luisi once said, its glorious music simply presents a portal that listeners can push through to confront the existential themes of life, ascending to transcendental spheres whose realm lies beyond death itself.

For the sheer number of emotions the work evokes: docility, compassion, exuberance, angst and desperation, overlaying it with a ballet was a challenge of the first order. Nonetheless, Christian Spuck, Zurich Ballet's Artistic Director, premiered his Messa da Requiem here three years ago to great acclaim. Conceived as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, his work features no fewer than 40 dancers and more than 100 singers of the Zurich Opera Chorus, whose collective presence on stage often translates to unrelenting action. Indeed, the final curtain call almost burst at the seams with the host of dancers, soloists, choir, designers and stage support.

William Moore © Gregory Batardon
William Moore
© Gregory Batardon

Yet the resonance of so many voices was truly sublime. Compelling staging saw the huge choir in a number of configurations: one time as an undulating wave, another time, as a force that filled the space enough to see some of its members climb up the flats stage right. In short, here was as much a thrilling use of choral bodies as it was of their vocal abilities. The four fine soloists – Guanqun Yu, Agnieszka Rehlis, Stephen Costello and Georg Zeppenfeld – delivered their parts from the same platform on which the dancers were moving, sometimes at a furious pace. Despite that, their vocal deliveries were seamless in every instance: no collisions, no overlaps.

Emma Ryott’s memorable costuming for the singers was unerringly black, but spates of copper and cherry fabrics over the dancers’ bodies made them moving sheaths of modest colour. In the wildly frightening Dies irae, principal dancer William Moore was decorated in ivory-colored body paint, the gravel and grey ashes on the stage floor seemingly ground into his “skin”, such that his own furtive desperation was entirely palpable, his performance, breathtaking.

Giulia Tonelli © Gregory Batardon
Giulia Tonelli
© Gregory Batardon

Soloist Giulia Tonelli also deserves the highest accolades. She opens the ballet by meandering laterally along the backstage wall, her sustained movements, the epitome of grace and human strength. In a later one of the seven scenes, she is hurdled across the stage by her two male partners, whose vehemence would make a brave man cry. Spuck’s choreography had Tonelli’s foot being caught several times by the leg of a kind of metal table, such that her body became a kind of gyrating pendant to a geometric form. Not surprisingly, the “table” to which she was attached, was thundered across the stage like human rage made visible: the words “high drama” don't define the sensation accurately enough.

Celebrated soloists Yen Han and Felipe Portugal gave us two compelling and intertwining pas de deux, the latter marked by a repetitive, largely frontal gesture that resembled a Möbius strip in an artistic form. While one might have left the ballet wanting to mimic the figure with somebody at home, fewer repeats of the same movement on stage might well have been more, especially with such distinguished talents.

Filipe Portugal and Yen Han © Gregory Batardon
Filipe Portugal and Yen Han
© Gregory Batardon

Reflecting the shadow of death, Martin Gephardt’s lighting was sublime throughout; one of the great surprises of the production were the huge, projected shadows of the dancers that took on a life of their own. The murky realm of twilight on the naked stage was slightly modified by chalk inscriptions the dancers scribbled on the outside walls, but more so when the ballet ended, and designer Christian Schmidt's stage ceiling tilted precariously out towards the audience. There, in one of the ceiling’s brightly-lit coffers, a single, white-sheathed corpse had found a kind of nest: a final image that was both confrontational and humbling.

Altogether, some 120 gifted musicians – the Philharmonia Zurich along with some two dozen substitutes and orchestra academy students – performed Verdi’s demanding score under the animated baton of the American conductor, Karina Canellakis. Together, they unravelled its rich textures memorably, and as she came on stage to great applause at the curtain, the Zurich audience signalled a clear message: “Brava, and come back soon!”

****1